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'U' students get a chance to wear the maize and blue

BY COURTNEY RATKOWIAK
Managing Editor
Published January 14, 2009

At this time last year, the idea of a Michigan football open tryout was a novelty.

But by now, it’s become tradition — and for the third time in 11 months, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff will be searching for athletes who worried more about college applications than letters of intent in high school.

The last two tryouts, held in February and September, included footwork stations, position drills, timed 40-yard runs and gassers. Friday’s tryout will be 30 minutes shorter than in the past.

Wide receiver and defensive back prospects were in high supply during both workouts. But Rodriguez said in both February and September that he was disappointed by the number of “big guys,” potential offensive and defensive linemen.

Two months after Rodriguez took the Michigan head coaching job, he held the first open tryout in program history. Sixty-five athletes tried out, and 12 were invited back for additional evaluation. Four athletes — redshirt freshman cornerback Tony Anderson, redshirt sophomore cornerback Bobby Centlivre, redshirt sophomore linebacker Mike Fish and redshirt sophomore safety Nick Koenigsknecht — made this year’s fall roster.

This September, three days after Michigan’s season-opening loss to Utah, 28 students came to Schembechler Hall at 6:00 a.m. for their shot to wear the maize and blue. Five athletes earned spots on the initial list, and freshman defensive back Matt Cavanaugh, redshirt freshman linebacker Russ Furrha and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Dominique Ware made the fall roster.

“We showed up to practice not knowing what to expect at all, so we just went in and basically did what we were told,” Cavanaugh said. “There was a lot of intimidation from not being on the team to going into everything 100 percent.”

Cavanaugh said current personal goals for himself and the other walk-ons range from moving up to the first line of the scout team to getting on the field during a game on special teams.

And in just two semesters, one of Rodriguez’s walk-ons has accomplished both. As a freshman, Anderson worked out at the CCRB four to five times per week for about four months prior to last February’s tryout. After Anderson made the team and finished spring practice, Rodriguez named Anderson the walk-on with the most potential to see the field.

And he did, playing on special teams in the last five games of the season after making his Wolverine debut against Michigan State.

Anderson’s success motivated his friend Ware to also try out, a camaraderie that extends to both groups of 2008 walk-ons.

“A lot of the walk-ons from the last tryouts, they are legit on the team — they have respect from the trainers, coaches and other players, even,” Cavanaugh said. “Most of them do, not all of them do. But those guys, they know what we’re going through and they know what we’re thinking.”

Rodriguez also knows what they’re thinking. While in college, he walked onto the football team at West Virginia after turning down football and basketball scholarships at other schools.

“I was lucky — all I wanted was for them to give me a good look,” Rodriguez said after February’s tryout, explaining his walk-on experience. “I had one year to make it, because if I didn’t make it, I would have had to transfer because I didn’t have the money. But I got a scholarship after the first year, so it worked out fine.”

And after implementing open tryouts as a coach at both West Virginia and Michigan, Rodriguez is still just as eager to talk about the potential of Michigan's undiscovered varsity athletes.

“It’s been beneficial,” Rodriguez said after last February’s tryout. “To me, it gives a guy a chance to chase a dream, and what’s wrong with that?”